How to Build Custom Mechanical Keyboards: A Beginners Guide

I know how difficult it is to step into the world of keyboards, let alone build custom mechanical keyboards. But no worries, I’ve got your back.

We’re going to go over everything you need to build a fantastic keyboard that suits your personality.

Let’s get into it!

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

A mechanical keyboard is a type of keyboard that has a spring and switch for each key. This makes it much more durable and gives it a heavy weight and premium feel. The switches provide a distinct, satisfying click or tactile bump when pressed, making typing a more tactile and enjoyable experience.

Keyboard Components

Let’s first understand the individual components required to build the keyboard, and we can then look at each of them in detail!

1) Overview

i) Keyboard Case

The outer casing of the keyboard, which is quite self-explanatory, encases the internal components of the board. It can either be a singular, unified structure or consist of multiple components. Take your time with this as this is an important decision, and you cannot change this later.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: kineticLabs

ii) PCB

Moving on to the PCB (printed circuit board), consider it as the keyboard’s nervous system. It’s the platform where you’ll install your switches and stabilizers. PCBs are available in two main variants: solderable and hot-swappable models. We’ll explore these in detail later on.

build custom mechanical keyboard

iii) Plate

Next, let’s discuss the plate. The plate plays a pivotal role by attaching switches to the PCB. It essentially secures the switch housing in position, giving it stability. Also, you can opt to solder the switches into place or seat them for hot-swappable compatibility within the PCB.

iv) Switches

Switches are the single most important deciding factor for keyboards. There are tons and we will be exploring them later on in the upcoming sections.

build custom mechanical keyboard

v) Stabilizers

A necessity as their name implies. They stabilize the wobble of big keys such as Caps Lock, Shift, etc.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: kineticLabs

vi) Keycaps

These components are a canvas for your creativity to flourish! They are readily available on various websites and can be categorized into three main aspects: profile, keycap sets, and artisan keycaps. If you’re accustomed to using gaming keyboards from prominent brands, you’ve likely encountered OEM keycaps. In such cases, transitioning to the Cherry profile is probably the smoothest adjustment.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: amazon

2) Keyboard Layouts

The wonderful thing about custom mechanical keyboards is the size range that they offer. However, having so many choices also makes it confusing to pick the right size. It ultimately depends on your preference, but having the knowledge of layouts helps.

Here’s a brief rundown of the various keyboard sizes:

  • Full-sized: Usually not found in custom keyboards; commonly found in pre-built ones. Custom full-sized keyboards are rare.

  • 1800-Compact (96%): A unique layout that merges the number pad with the main critical section, eliminating the navigational cluster. This size is usually accessible through group buys.

  • Tenkeyless: A popular layout that removes the number pad while retaining the standard keyboard layout.

  • 75%: Similar to the tenkeyless layout, it arranges the navigational cluster vertically to conserve space. Offers a fun and comfortable typing experience.

  • 65%: This layout omits the function row but retains some of the navigational clusters. It’s also the smallest keyboard size to keep dedicated arrow keys.

  • 60%: The most common custom keyboard layout, lacking a function row, arrow keys, or a navigational cluster. Components for a 60% keyboard are the easiest to find.

  • 40%: The tiniest size you can still type on, essentially a 60% keyboard with the numeric keys removed. Typing on this size requires adapting to different layers, making it a long adjustment process.

When selecting a keyboard size, desk space is typically the topmost consideration for most users. If you have ample desk space, these options can be a good fit. However, if your desk space is limited, you might find a smaller layout like the 60% size to be the perfect solution.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: keychain

3) PCB

The PCB, or printed circuit board, serves as the link between your keyboard’s switches and your computer, allowing them to communicate with each other.

When you press a key, the metal plates within the switches make contact, transmitting a signal to the computer that a keystroke has been registered.

Now, let’s explore the three primary types of PCBs:

  • Standard PCB: The most commonly used PCB in keyboards. All you need is to solder the switches to the PCB. It offers a high degree of flexibility in terms of key placement, hence you can make something crazy like a split spacebar.

  • Hot-Swappable PCB: For those who prefer to avoid soldering (I feel ya), a hot-swappable PCB is the way to go. Simply press the switches into the PCB without any soldering. They are convenient for quick and easy setup but limit you to the standard ANSI layout, so no craziness here.

  • Through-Hole PCB: While not beginner-friendly, this is for a satisfying DIY experience. You’ll have to solder everything, and I mean everything– including diodes, resistors, USB ports, controllers, and more. It’s a more complex but fun path if you enjoy a more hands-on approach.

Choosing these PCB types ultimately hinges on your comfort level and interest in soldering.

build custom mechanical keyboard

4) Keyboard Plates

When acquiring a keyboard, plate selection becomes a crucial decision, as mentioned earlier. Your choice of plate can impact your keyboard’s rigidity, sound profile, and layout.

While most kits include a plate that’s compatible with the board, if you’re assembling your keyboard from individual components, you must research and confirm that the plate layout you’re acquiring aligns with your keyboard. This attention to detail makes sure that your keyboard matches your preferences and needs.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting – some keyboards offer plates made from different materials. If this whole plate-picking thing has your head spinning, don’t worry; we’ve got your back.

For a safe bet, you can kick things off with an aluminum plate or FR4 plate. These options are pretty darn balanced, so they’re a good starting point. But hey, if you’re feeling like you want to add some muscle to your keyboard, go for brass. It’ll make your setup stiffer and might even give you that extra oomph.

5) Keyboard Switches

Switches can be a real head-scratcher, no doubt about it. When people step into the keyboard hobby, this is where things tend to get a tad tangled. Each has its own quirks – materials, tweaks to the switch design, springs, and some even come factory-lubed. It’s a wild world out there.

But don’t worry! I’ve tried to simplify this whole switch business as much as humanly possible. So, here’s the lowdown: switches boil down to three main categories – linear, tactile, and clicky. Out of these, linear and tactile switches are the heavy hitters.

Here’s the quick scoop: Tactile switches give you a little bump when you press ’em, so you can feel the actuation. Clicky switches, well, they make a satisfying click sound and give you that bump. And then, there are linear switches, the no-nonsense ones that don’t fuss with bumps or clicks – they just do their thing.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: Tenor

Picking the perfect switch is a bit like finding your favorite flavor of ice cream – it’s highly personal. But fear not, I can offer you some starting points to dip your toes into the vast world of switches.

i) For Linear Switches:

If you crave that satisfying clackity-clack sound, go for a switch with a long pole stem (linear).
If you want something a bit more subtle, opt for a silent switch.

ii) For Tactile Switches:

If you want just a hint of tactility, seek out switches with a gentle bump, like Penguin Switches.
For a more pronounced tactile experience with a satisfying thud, go for switches boasting a substantial bump and a long stem, like Salmon switches.

I know y’all are still confused, so see the video linked below. It’ll clear things up!

6) Keycaps

The final stretch of building your keyboard is the most enjoyable part. Here’s where you get to play with all sorts of keycap profiles and let me tell you, it’s like choosing the perfect outfit for your keyboard!

There’s a whole zoo of profiles, from the tall SA keycaps to the more standard Cherry profile keycaps. Now, let’s talk materials.

You’ll mainly bump into two keycap materials: ABS and PBT. ABS tends to shine a bit quicker, but it comes with a brighter, higher-pitched sound when it dances with your keyboard. On the flip side, PBT is all about doing the opposite, giving you a more subdued and mellow sound.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Quick Checklist

Here’s a checklist for you to go through before we start assembling the keyboard:

  • Keyboard Case
  • PCB (Printed Circuit Board)
  • Stabilizers
  • Switches
  • Keycaps
  • Lubricants (for stabs and switches)
  • Brushes (for lubing)
  • Soldering iron
  • Switch Puller and Switch Opener
  • Precision Screwdriver Kit
  • Tweezer Kit

How to Build Custom Mechanical Keyboards

First, make sure to lubricate your switches; this step significantly enhances the overall typing experience. Additionally, double-check that you have all the necessary components and parts readily available for the build.

1) Checking PCB

build custom mechanical keyboard

Required:
Have your tweezers ready as well as a cable to plug in your PCB.

Steps:
Launch your preferred program, such as VIA, to verify the functionality of your PCB. Using tweezers, gently tap each switch, and check if it registers as a keypress within your program. Continue this process for all the keys on the keyboard.

2) Lubing / Installing Stabilisers

Required:
Stabilizers, PCB, a brush, lube, and screwdriver set.

Steps:
Lubricate and fine-tune your stabilizers (see below video). Depending on your chosen layout, fix the stabilizers in position and securely fasten them. Insert a switch between them and test their functionality by typing. Once you’re satisfied with their performance, proceed to the next step.

3) Mounting Switches

Required:
Switches, PCB, Plate, Soldering Iron ( as per requirement)

Steps:
Begin by positioning your plate onto the stabilizers; it should sit snugly in place. Now, insert your switches. If you’re using a hot-swap PCB, ensure you provide support for the sockets. However, if your PCB is soldered, make certain that all switches sit flush as you press them into position. Then, proceed to solder each switch securely into place.

build custom mechanical keyboard

Source: ProSettings.net

4) Preparing Your Case

Required:
Keyboard Kit, Screwdrivers, any other accessories(gaskets, foam daughter board, etc)

Steps:
If you’re building a gasket-mounted keyboard, first install the gaskets, and if applicable, include the daughterboard. After this, use any necessary foam components according to your design. Next, get the PCB and plate.
You can either use screws or position it on the gaskets. Finally, seal your keyboard case, aaaaaand… you’re done!

5) Usage

Add the keycaps! Not gonna lie- this is the most fun part of all.
Let us know your combination of switches and cases as well.

building custom mechanical keyboard

Source: Reddit

How to Tune Your Keyboard Sounds

Now that your keyboard is assembled, you might have noticed some key components that influence its sound, as discussed in our guide. Let’s see some ways to fine-tune our keyboard’s acoustics:

If your keyboard sounds hollow

Try using PolyFil or Poron foam. PolyFil is super lightweight and can help distribute the resonance of the case without completely altering your board’s sound profile. Poron, on the other hand, mutes the overall sound while serving a similar purpose.

If your keyboard is too quiet

Some kits may produce a softer sound, especially with materials like POM or PC plates coupled with quiet switches. To boost the volume, experiment with different keycap materials or profiles, or opt for switches with longer poles or louder characteristics. As a quick hack, you can tape the underside of the PCB with a layer or two of masking tape or painter’s tape.

If your stabilizers rattle

No worries, the simplest fix is to use a syringe to apply lube to your stabilizers gradually. The great part is that you can do this without disassembling the entire board.

Wrap Up

Once you’re fully content with your keyboard, remember that keyboard preferences are highly individual. People have diverse tastes, and that’s what makes the keyboard community so interesting. Keyboards are a luxury item, and while they offer a world of possibilities, it’s important not to overspend. This universe is constantly expanding with new keycaps, switches, and innovations, making it an exciting and ever-evolving space. I am delighted you’ve joined this vibrant community!

Happy KeyBuilding 🙂

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